On the Sindika Dokolo Foundation and art’s exceptionalism

Self-Marginalisation, Exclusion & Inclusion

This is an image during the official Ceremony in Luanda where 3 stolen pieces from Dundo Museum have been officially presented to the Angolan authorities on the very symbolic date for Angola of February 4th in presence of the President of Angola, His Ex. José Eduardo Dos Santos and King of Chokwe, His Majesty King Mwene Muatxissengue Wa-Tembo. This ceremony took place in the Presidential Palace in Luanda. Image courtesy of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation.This is an image during the official Ceremony in Luanda where 3 stolen pieces from Dundo Museum have been officially presented to the Angolan authorities on the very symbolic date for Angola of February 4th in presence of the President of Angola, His Ex. José Eduardo Dos Santos and King of Chokwe, His Majesty King Mwene Muatxissengue Wa-Tembo. This ceremony took place in the Presidential Palace in Luanda. Image courtesy of the Sindika Dokolo Foundation.

 

In his work of longing and reflection, Farewell to an Idea, Marxist art historian T.J. Clark states, “If I cannot have the proletariat as my chosen people anymore, at least capitalism remains my Satan.”1 At once a recognition of the end of modernism and an elegy for the type of art history suited to the task of its interpretation, Clark’s book tells us that modernism is our ancestor, as its hopes and dreams are unrecognisable to us now. What he calls the “two great wishes” of modernism were that the audience recognise “the social reality of the sign; but equally it dreamed of turning the sign back to a bedrock […] which the to and fro of capitalism had all but destroyed.”2 

I want to briefly touch on such “bedrocks” of Africanity evoked by the Sindika Dokolo Foundation in its exhibitions, collecting, and cultural programming – particularly the artistic, critical, and historical reverberations of his decade-long efforts. The collection is chaired by Sindika Dokolo, vice chaired by Angolan artist Fernando Alvim, and has often featured the curatorial work of Cameroonian art historian and critic Simon Njami. Dokolo is a Congolese/Danish/Angolan businessman married to the daughter of Eduardo dos Santos, who has been the president of Angola since 1979. The foundation made its debut with the first Trienal de Luanda in 2006, after several years of preparation work following the ceasefire of 2002 in Angola. The foundation has maintained a steady but aggressive schedule of exhibitions and work, most of which can be found documented on its website.3

The Trienal de Luanda opened with a major exhibition dedicated to two Angolan artistic ancestors: Chokwe wall murals from Northeastern Angola and the paintings of Viteix, a major anti-colonial and Independence era artist and administrator. With these two exhibitions, Angolan artist Fernando Alvim, the curator and director of the triennial, set his agenda for his evolving role with the Dokolo Foundation. He would insist that the Trienal de Luanda and the Foundation were oriented first to Angolans, next to Africans, and last to the international art world. Thus far, the Foundation has maintained that course. A recent and well-publicised effort by the Dokolo Foundation has been the repatriation of Chokwe mwana pwo and other rare classical masks that were looted from the Dundo Museum during Angola’s civil war. The relationship that Dokolo has established with the museum is characteristic of his public/private approach, which he says is facilitated by his good relationship with Angolan cultural ministers.4

Mwana Pwo Mask Three (Chokwe) D.R.Congo / Angola, wood, c. end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Image courtesy of  Fundação Sindika Dokolo.Mwana Pwo Mask Three (Chokwe) D.R.Congo / Angola, wood, c. end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Image courtesy of Fundação Sindika Dokolo.

 

It is precisely this “public/private” status that, especially in countries like Angola that have in the past attempted to implement scientific socialism, present a challenge for social art historians and critics when discussing art’s autonomy. Almost thirty years after the official fall of communism, Clark acknowledges that the terminology of anti-capitalism is defunct. He writes of this coexistence of modernism with modernity: a term which encompasses socialism and capitalism as flips sides of the same coin, each with differing ideas of artistic autonomy. His is an analysis that, in its focus on the Western modernist tradition, is able to lament a time (and place) when artists made their formalist advances in opposition to capitalism and the crass love of luxury by the European bourgeoisie. What I read in Clark’s account is additionally the death of a type of art history that pretended that the centre of modernism could hold – that is, the centre and periphery carved into a map drawn during the age of exploration and defined autonomy in Western philosophical terms.

Likewise, for us involved in global art production and scholarship (and more pressing today, after the disaster of a 2016 election season in the United States) we need better ways to analyse money and wealth as it regards the autonomy of art. Most of the art criticism and history written from the 1980s onward was a quasi-leftist analysis of the economy’s encroachment into art via the art market. Such scholarship serves to reinforce the alterity of the mega-wealthy but rarely specifies its definition of labour and production, and is ambivalent about actors from so-called peripheral countries who successfully take control of capital. Some feel they have been thrust into the sphere of a global capitalism that mixes metaphors, blending markers of Marxist revolution with their all-out commodification – and the long history of such dissonance. In my recently published book Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art, I muse that Angola has long given us the ultimate test of the idea of artistic autonomy, due to its current dependence on the mega commodity of oil and its past nationalisation of industry and culture under Marxist-Leninist governance.5 Given this history and the global art world’s penchant for empty metaphors as ethical statements, the global south has long been poised to generate tomorrow’s philosophies of art.6

The questions we face with regards to the type of capitalism generated in Africa goes back to questions of liberation and its ethics: the terms under which emancipation from European colonialism would be achieved. For some, figures like Sindika Dokolo and Isabel dos Santos represent the failure of the socialist revolution to make life better for the people. I do not want to rehash those issues since I expand on those quite exhaustively in my book, but the fundamental question concerns the Africanisation of European methods of wealth collection and power consolidation – this African control over everything from extraction to resale is what Dokolo claims is revolutionary.7 Who, in this situation, is the political or economic other? The answer, that there is no stable other, is a crisis felt by many political philosophers, artists, and art critics in recent decades. There is a good deal of hypocrisy, for instance, in Bill Gates’ criticism of Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid on the grounds that Moyo is making “dangerous” pronouncements for Africans if/when they refuse aid from the North. Something we can debate, is her full embrace of Western capitalism as the only way forward for African nations.

Does it matter that Dokolo is African or not? On the one hand, it matters very much, and for a few reasons that Moyo herself discusses in Dead Aid. According to her, the best hope for African prosperity is for countries to enter into capital markets; to finance its “real” properties. Perhaps the most important thing for artists, however, is the existence of an art market – an art world – in African cities. I am less interested in whether Dokolo defines himself as an African collector or his collection as African than I am with the insistence on building a home for the collection in Luanda and doing the work of making spaces for artists there. Similarly, I admire the efforts of Dokolo, Alvim, and Njami to even out the exhibition sites they utilise, only showing in Europe in between exhibitions on the African continent. Sadly, such efforts are rare. We should debate and discuss the cultural dynamics of his proposed contemporary art centre in Luanda, as we have with the nearly-opened Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town. But in paradoxical ways, collections, market(s), and global contemporary art museums register aesthetic and political dissensus, whether they set out to or not.

The real work is being done by African artists who expand what is seeable and sayable in the world.

 

The real work is being done by African artists who expand what is seeable and sayable in the world. Their work, their production, is exceptional to the market. Though exhibitions and art fairs have increased the visibility of African artists, visibility is not enough and does not promise aesthetic or philosophical potential. In fact, this is where Fernando Alvim has played an important role for the Dokolo Foundation. He is an artist, a self-defined interlocutor, and has passionately argued for the ethics of increasing the presence of art in the city of Luanda. There is a way in which the distribution of the work of African contemporary art has served this crucial function, creating a sensory equality, if not yet legal or economic. As I see it, the real measure of “success” (whatever that may mean) for the Dokolo Foundation and Angolan artists, will be in multiplying art production that occurs beyond, and perhaps even in opposition to, the Foundation’s auspices.

This relationship of art’s exceptionalism and its autonomy is what I understand having an increasingly pressing importance in the coming years in Angola, Africa, and beyond. It is the topic of a book published last year by artist and Freee collective member Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical, and Marxist Economics.8 One unique value of this book is Beech’s use of Marxist terms to argue why Marxist art criticism and history is not particularly suited to analysing art. His conclusion is that art is indeed exceptional to economic concerns, mostly because art production is not capitalist. One can see this operating in Angolan artist Paulo Kapela’s installation work within the Dokolo collection: its commodity status compared to its production over two decades in the building that houses the Union of Angolan Visual Artists in Luanda. Part installation, part altar, the work was produced totally outside of the gallery; forged during a time when there was hardly anything resembling an art market in Angola. If the production of these works was expressly anti-capitalist, then their status within the Dokolo collection is primarily to preserve not only the object, but the history of that mode of production. Similarly, we can look at Chokwe works repatriated to Angola through Dokolo’s programme to identify and return objects from the Dundo Museum in these terms. There is nothing metaphorically “African” about this. The physical presence of the collection on the continent is a literal Africanness, and in the end a more powerful one.

 

Manche de Hochet (Chokwe) D.R.Congo / Angola, wood, c. end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Image courtesy of Fundação Sindika Dokolo.Manche de Hochet (Chokwe), D.R.Congo / Angola, wood, c. end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. Image courtesy of Fundação Sindika Dokolo.

 

Dokolo does not consider himself part of the art world and in many ways operates like Sultan Al-Qassemi, whose Barjeel Art Foundation in Sharjah has a similar regional commitment and pours money into local artists and markets. His is also a private collection with a public interest, which is shown primarily in the region and hosts conferences and programmes on Arab art. As with the debate over wealth inequality in the UAE, Dokolo’s and Isabel dos Santos’ wealth and politics will likely continue to be debated in the public sphere – and make no mistake, there is a healthy debate in and outside of the country. From the amount of artists and musicians I have witnessed rise and be recognised in the art world in the years since the Dokolo Foundation’s work started, there can be no debate about the importance and effectiveness of its work in post-war Angola.

Delinda Collier is Associate Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her current book project is on the history of new media art on the African continent.

 

FOOTNOTES:

T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2001), 7-8.

Ibid., 9-10.

www.fondation-sindikadokolo.com

Sindika Dokolo, phone correspondence with author, December 19, 2016.

Delinda Collier, Repainting the Walls of Lunda: Information Colonialism and Angolan Art (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016).

See, for instance, Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa (London: Routledge, 2011).

There is an ongoing and heated debate between Dokolo and the Angolan journalist Rafael Marques, whose website Maka Angola is dedicated to agitating against what he sees as a total control over Angola and its resources by President dos Santos’ family. Dokolo claims that Marques is supported by George Soros, “the archetype of the Western capitalist who wants to avoid competition from local operators’ access to Africa’s economic potential.” Celso Filipe, “Sindika Dokolo: ‘Reduzir a imagem de Angola à corrupção é uma manipulação desonesta,’” Jornal de Negócios, December 3, 2013: http://www.jornaldenegocios.pt/economia/detalhe/reduzir_a_imagem_de_angola_a_corrupcao_e_uma_manipulacao_desonesta.html. 

Dave Beech, Art and Value: Art’s Economic Exceptionalism in Classical, Neoclassical, and Marxist Economics (Leiden: Brill, 2015).